Certain picturesque features of classical antiquity – the gladiatorial shows, for instance, or the volcanic eruption of AD 79 that overwhelmed Pompeii – hold a perennial popular appeal, which a Hollywood director or a bestselling novelist can still hope to tap. So do certain charismatic ancient personalities – Alexander of Macedon, say, or Queen Cleopatra. But the history of Greek and Roman antiquity spans a thousand years, and the study of its political nuts and economic bolts is nowadays a specialised field in which experts tend to plough quite narrowly defined furrows. Still, whether or not modern Europeans and Americans care to notice it, the brute fact is that many of their core political and cultural presuppositions are peculiarly linked to Greek and Roman precedents, and it is tempting in this connection to apply to antiquity Leon Trotsky's celebrated dictum about war: you may not be interested in it – but it is definitely interested in you. An outsider might consider the intricacies of ancient history a matter of no importance to anyone except a sub-Johnsonian species of scholarly drudge, but some current practitioners of the subject take a far more combative view of its contemporary relevance – and, more to the point, so did some of the neo-conservative clique around George Bush that lately pressed for military intervention and exemplary 'regime change' in an irksome Middle Eastern state: the portentously named 2000 Project for the New American Century, a right-wing think-tank patronised by Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney, boasted a bigwig professor of classical Greek history from Yale among its leading lights.
In 2005, as their dream of a Pax Americana dissolves in a sea of insurgents' bombs and threadbare spin, Washington's more reflective neo-cons may wish in hindsight that their professor's specialist knowledge had extended beyond Greek warfare to the geopolitics of the Roman Empire. One instance of gung-ho Roman adventurism